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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

How a grocery startup is coping with panic buying

Awareness of simple collaboration tools had to be created and guidelines circulated to enhance effectiveness of employees working from home

What started as something everyone thought was just another type of flu that would be contained within China’s borders has transformed lives across the globe.

On 2 March there was a post on the WhatApp group of the Bigbasket management council that we had touched a new high on the number of orders delivered through BB Daily service that day. There was all-round applause. Later that day came the first mention on the group of the coronavirus scare, and the fact that British online grocery company Ocado was facing “exceptionally high demand".

It was becoming evident that it would be just a few weeks before we were impacted. Some in the leadership team were more paranoid than the rest, and, quite rightly, their viewpoint prevailed. We quickly decided to issue an advisory on international and domestic travel. Not more than two management council members were to be in the same room. We came up with detailed guidelines on preventive measures through enhanced hygiene levels across the company, including daily monitoring of body temperature for all employees. Tanuja Tewari, our VP HR, had a conference call with the leadership teams in the regions explaining the seriousness of the situation and the emergency response process.

Hygiene measures were stepped up across the board. The procurement team went into high gear procuring contactless body temperature scanners, gloves, masks and sanitizers. Sanitizers were soon out of stock, even on our own platform. One of our customers in panic ordered 50kg of rice. Very soon we saw what Ocado had earlier reported. The average basket value jumped by 15% to 20% and the overall traffic by nearly 100%. This meant there were several first-time customers. It still wasn’t a case of customers hoarding but there was certainly a sense of wanting to be prepared.

Our supply chain and related processes were geared for steady demand with a modest month-on-month growth, but the sudden spike in demand threw our supply chain and key metrics out of gear. We opened up delivery slots a full week in advance. We revived an old experiment with ‘contactless’ delivery, and the product/tech teams made the necessary changes that would enable this feature.

Bigbasket, directly or through third parties, employs nearly 25,000 people. Most of them would not have the option of working from home. Only those working in corporate functions could work from home. On 15 March we decided that employees in all corporate teams, except customer service, would work from home. Many living in paying guest accommodation found themselves in trouble because of spotty Wifi and having to go to restaurants for meals. There were requests to travel and work from hometowns. We had to quickly work out ways to address these exigencies.

Most employees were not used to working from home. Awareness of simple collaboration tools had to be created and guidelines circulated to enhance effectiveness. Most employees seemed happy to beat the notorious Bengaluru traffic (saving two hours a day is good), but some whose work involved collaboration found it difficult to cope.

Last Saturday, the Prime Minister announced the Janata Curfew. Essential services like grocery delivery were exempt but there was ambiguity and confusion on the ground as to what constituted an essential service and who were the authorised providers. The PM returned with an address on Tuesday, announcing a 21-day lockdown, which led to a further spike in traffic. There have been traffic restrictions and delays, and we are working with authorities to remain operational. Situations like these are absolutely unpredictable. The only way to deal with them suitably, and with agility, is to keep the interests of the customers and employees at the centre of every thought process and response.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of BigBasket.

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